Season 4 of The Americans was a lot more John le Carré than Ian Fleming; the tension remained palpable, but the action was less overt than it had been in previous seasons. If the first episode of season 5 is anything to go by, The Americans will be continuing in that vein. Nonetheless, because of the aforementioned tension, I would never describe this show as plodding, and that holds true here, even if the premiere was a bit heavy with the exposition. There is a slow-burn at work, a feeling that catastrophe is looming in the near distance, and every moral quandary the Jennings stumble and shoot their way through brings them one step closer to it.
The final scene of the episode was a great showcase for what The Americans manages to do so much better than its peers; we had a seemingly infinite scene with Elizabeth, Phillip, and Hans digging for some unknown object. While it eventually becomes clear they are seeking William’s corpse from the finale of season 4, from which they’ll extract a sample of the modified Lhassa Fever, the show is willing to keep its audience in the dark, both literally and figuratively, for more than fifteen minutes.
That’s fifteen minutes of footage of a few people digging a ditch, taking snack breaks, swapping out with their comrades, and so on. There is no mystery for the audience to crack, no way of solving exactly what is to come, and yet the scene is brilliant. It’s tense for obvious reasons, like the cinematography and the setting, but also because we know what The Americans is capable of. We know something is about to go horribly wrong. If there’s another show willing to devote airtime to such a creative risk, I’m not aware of it.
I’m sure the payoff itself was, to many, something of a letdown. There was no “Martial Eagle”-style surprise that devolved into Phillip and Elizabeth battling guards and slaughtering innocents. Instead, Elizabeth had to put down Hans, a scene which recalled for me that urban legend about frat boys having to kill puppies they’d been forced to raise. (I hope it’s an urban legend, anyway.) She’d trained this kid for years, and the fact that Keri Russell was able to convey immediate regret and sorrow from behind a surgical mask is just one of the reasons her name gets the top billing for this series. The problem is that most of the emotion in the scene for me arose from Elizabeth’s reaction and not the loss of a character who had gradually, over the years, been demoted to a red shirt with a name.
Could the scene have been better if Hans had been more prominent in the fourth season? Probably, although if I’m being honest, I was never all that big a fan of Hans anyway. The immediacy of Elizabeth executing him, however, was a another great instance of the show’s interrogation of toxic patriotism; Elizabeth is willing to do whatever she believes is best for her country, no matter the personal cost. I wonder if, at some point, this will end up putting her at irreconcilable odds with Phillip, who is willing to go to the same lengths she is, but is always more concerned with protecting their family than the motherland.
The removal of Hans is also of interest because of its intersection with Elizabeth beginning to train Paige in self-defense. It is almost as if she traded one protege for another, although from what the show has told us thus far, Paige would make a far better spy than Hans ever did, even if she’s more morally aligned with Phillip than Elizabeth. Again, one of the most striking aspects of the episode came from Keri Russell reacting to something, with the quick, tiny flash of pride that washed across her smile when Paige learned how to make a proper fist. That Russell doesn’t have an Emmy on her shelf for this role is an ongoing source of mystery for me.
My one major concern for the show going forward is the future incorporation of Margo Martindale. While keeping Claudia on the show gives Gabriel the ability to do something other than mentor/manipulate the Jennings family, I worry that her character only remains on the show as Emmy bait. Phenomenal actress that she is, she consistently wins Emmys for this show even when she’s only in a single scene in an entire season, and this might result in her being unnaturally inserted into the plot. Then again, I trust these writers, and if my only concern is that we might get a lot more screen time from one of the world’s greatest actors, I guess I don’t have much to be concerned about at all, do I?
What did you think of the season premiere? Do you care that Hans is gone? Did you think the ditch digging scene was as brilliant as I did, or did it drag on for too long?